When answering questions at last week’s Energy Live News conference, Andrea Leadsom, Minister of State for Energy at the UK Government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), openly declared her belief that nuclear power is “very, very cheap electricity; with a marginal cost of generation”, completely ignoring the two white elephants in the room : the UK’s continued public finance obligation to dispose of radioactive and toxic waste from the last 60 years of the nuclear power programme; and the immensely subsidised framework for developing new nuclear power that the UK Government has had to underwrite.
But there is also a third elephant walking into the room : the increasing unreliability of ageing nuclear power plants, not only in Britain, but also in France, and all across Europe, and anywhere, in fact, where the nuclear building boom took place 30 or so years ago. And one unplanned downed nuclear power plant requires an awful lot of backup to keep power grids from collapsing. And in a very short space of time.
So the question has to be asked – even if I am the only person in the room asking the question (and I’m not) – why does the UK Government continue to insist that a new nuclear power programme is vital ?
Government officials claim that new nuclear power plants will be more secure – which is a claim that deserves in-depth scrutiny; and that the cost of decommissioning and the disposal of radioactive and toxic waste has to be provided for in the financing of the project. Except it is highly likely to be undervalued. Because the UK Government is planning to build one (or more) Geological Disposal Facilities (GDFs), perhaps under a National Park near you. Furnished from the public purse. And when they have finally done so, they will buy back the obligation to dispose of nuclear waste from the private nuclear power plant companies. One can easily predict that the public will have to pay more to dispose of the waste than those contracts of waste disposal obligation transfer will be worth.
The companies that want to build new nuclear power plants know that the UK Government will buy back their duty to decommission and their duty to safely dispose of nuclear waste. So they have a free hand to undercost these obligations in their own accounts. If you don’t have an idea of what I’m talking about, Google “European Commission nuclear waste transfer contracts”, and you will find this from 9th October 2015.
Just another nuclear subsidy, you might think. We have to pay a bit up-front to get lovely, juicy, reliable, always on “baseload” nuclear electricity, you might think. Well think this : the UK could get an equivalent, reliable supply of power from a carefully balanced combination of wind power, solar power and low carbon gas-fired power, at a third of the cost. Or less. Without subsidies or sweeteners, or long lead times to new project power.
Andrea Leadsom was also off the money when she responded to questions about the economic value of new nuclear power (and Carbon Capture and Storage), “[In nuclear] there are new opportunities in low carbon energy – and sequestering – huge opportunities for growth and jobs. We’re doing a lot on building solutions – [for example] new nuclear colleges…” She ignored the fact that nuclear power and other large construction schemes such as Carbon Capture and Storage facilities will inevitably be “front-heavy” or frontloaded – all the capital and labour will be needed at the start of the projects, but employment will tail off rapidly after main construction ceases. How pitiful a promise is that ? Not a permanent strengthening of the UK economy, but a temporary glitch. By contrast, investment in renewable electricity and various forms of Renewable Gas could really bolster the economy – for decades or longer – enabling a phased transition to a fully low carbon economy – without massive engineering projects – the very thing we cannot currently afford.
More questions came from the floor. “[Question from Bloomberg] : Is the Government planning to phase out coal by 2023 ? [Answer] : As the Prime Minister has said, we don’t want to rely on unabated coal. [But] all fossil fuels will remain part of the mix, particularly Natural Gas – the cleanest and greenest fossil fuel.” What the Minister did not admit was that Natural Gas had saved the day only the day before, when several coal-fired power plants were unavailable, and one appeared to break down (by analysis of the data), and National Grid put out a call for extra generation. Natural Gas was responsible for generating upwards of 40% of power during the peak on that calm Wednesday evening (according to some figures I’ve seen). It’s time the UK Government admitted that we are dependent on Natural Gas and the flexibility it provides – it offers both energy security and de-carbonisation.
“[Question from E1] : [Is the Government] considering an equivalent of Silicon Valley in the UK ? What is our core competency ? [Answer] : Our creative and engineering [competencies] are second to none… The National Nuclear Laboratory… Thorium reactors…”.
It was at this point that I had my second urge to leave the hall. Thorium ? Have you any idea how much time it will take to make and perfect higher generation nuclear reactor designs ? We just don’t have that time. We have about ten years to firm up energy security – not just of electricity, but heating and transport too. We don’t have time for fancy nuclear gizmo research to come to fruition – if it ever does.
Andrea Leadsom continued, “…new blade factory at Hull…”
I’m always amazed when a Minister cannot bring themselves to actually say the words WIND TURBINE.
“…We’ve got the shale…”
No, actually, you don’t have any shale gas yet.
“… onshore oil and gas college. The UK will lead the world on small scale… small [profile] pumps… Different initiatives in different areas. In DECC we keep a close eye on these technologies. When you want a mix, you don’t want to pick winners…”
But you already have picked winners : shale, coal-to-biomass conversion and nuclear.
“…see which become most useful to our consumers.”
“[Question from David Porter] In the power industry, decisions appear to be micro-managed by Government. […] like decisions to do with de-carbonisation. Wouldn’t it be better to have a European Union carbon price and leave things alone after that and let industry decide what to put in place ? [Answer] : We are committed to reform of the ETS [European Trading Scheme]. It hasn’t worked so far. […] make a level playing field… You’re obviously right : the ETS is a large part of that. Ofgem and National Grid are making decisions – not DECC – to power up and down plant. We’re not micro-managing daily electricity supply.”
So, it’s National Grid’s fault there have been few new Natural Gas-fired power plants and no new nuclear power plants to call on in the last five years ?
“You won’t see DECC saying ‘outsource it’. [Key direction] always stays with Government. [Question from Chartered Builders] : [Will there be] a coherent plan on energy efficiency ? [Answer] : Well, certainly, energy efficiency [is important to] the DECC and governemnt… DCLG [Department of Communities and Local Government]… hospitals and schools… Will there be a national efficiency framework ? [We] always keep [that option] under consideration.”
So there you have it. DECC are not in control of which electricity generation plant gets built, are only willing to push nuclear power and shale gas, and not pay the relatively much smaller costs of a national building insulation programme, and will blame National Grid if they don’t choose the correct low carbon mix of electricity generation – which won’t be available because DECC can’t bring themselves to properly support renewable energy.
Is the Government actually in charge of the direction of energy ? Well, they don’t appear to have a functioning energy policy, and they’ve “devolved” a lot of decision-making and responsibilities.
The new Infrastructure Commission will find it easier to build roads and airport runways than new power generation plant.
Now they’re committed to avoid spending any money on energy, I don’t have much hope that DECC can achieve much in terms of influencing decarbonisation, because persuasion is the tool they have left in the box, and they aren’t convincing me.